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Welcome sign to Knight Island State Park.

The winter of 2019 in Vermont was one of the most brutal winters in recent history. We experienced everything, from high accumulating snow storms with high winds to freezing rain. The snow storms were reminiscent of my childhood. I can remember snow being piled half way up telephone poles. From December to April, I am confined to my plow truck. By the end of February I want to trade in my childhood enthusiasm of winter for some primal camping. It seems that this phenomenon happens to me every year at around this time. I have camped over night on Burton Island, and day camped at Knight Island, not to mention other winter excursions. I like to test the limits of my body and skills to survive. Doing this in the winter, on an island seems to magnify the experience.

The call to camp on Knight Island was getting louder with every snow storm. The short term forecast provided a break, but it  wasn’t quite the break I was looking for. Between ministry commitments and potential snow coming in on Saturday, I was relegated to just a day camping experience. On Thursday I made sure my plow truck was checked over, cleaned and loaded up for the impending snow on Saturday. My time off was approved. I was ready to kick up my heals like a penned up calf being released into a spring pasture.

A map of Knight Island.

Thursday after work, I set out to check my potential route over the Lake Champlain ice. From Kamp Kill Kare State Park in St. Albans, you can see a portion of Knight Island. From Kill Kare, the island is West of Woods Island, which sits just in front of it. I have made this trip before and figured it to be a 10 to 14 mile hike round trip. That does not include the mile long hike around the island in heavy snow.

While I was scanning the ice on shore, 2 men came off the ice from that direction. I struck up a conversation with the 2 older gentlemen, hoping to get some good intel. What I got was more than good information. I had a pleasant conversation with Havar and Evar who are originally from Costa Rica. A few curious inquiries from me during the conversation had us talking about hiking on ice and exploring the Lake Champlain islands. We talked about our Faith, and experiences in Guatemala. I am always blown away by how much I have in common with complete strangers that cross my path. All it takes is a little time and a willingness to engage. Listening doesn’t hurt either!

When I got home, I commenced to packing. Our son had bought me some cool camping equipment for Christmas and I was determined to try it out! Just packing it had me excited for the next day.
The morning arrived. I got my morning rituals out of the way quickly. Ann has learned when I am focused on an adventure that it is best to encourage me, and give me the space to do my thing. Ann did just that and gave me her blessing to have a good time.  A few kisses on the lips and I was out the door.

View of Hero’s Welcome General Store from the lake.

Not even a mile into my drive, I made a decision to hike from the other side of the lake. Coming in
from North Hero meant a slightly longer drive but a shorter walk. Parking the car at Hero’s Welcome General Store would require asking permission to park. Asking permission to do most anything is a struggle for me, but I opted to do it anyway. I’m glad I did. I filled up my thermos with hot coffee and got the ok to park the car for a few hours.

Once I was at the car, I put on my pack and hit the ice. It was a perfectly sunny day and snow covered Mount Mansfield was contrasted by a deep blue sky. The majestic stature of Mansfield gave me a sense of peace as I walked in it’s direction.

Ice formations on Lake Champlain.

It didn’t take long to enter the broad lake. The wind was whipping across the ice, and I became very grateful for every article of warm clothing I brought. Being cooped up in a truck for 3 months showed me just how out of shape I was, once I started fighting the elements. My quick decision to shorten my hike from 5 -7 miles to 2.5 was a Godsend! I arrived at the ranger station that is operational from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A picnic table in the sun looked too inviting too pass up. I took a few minutes to rest, hydrate and take in a little nourishment.

The plan was to check out the group camping site on the southwest shore at Birch Bay and continue around the island. It didn’t take long to realize that not bringing my snowshoes was a big mistake. The snow went up to my knees in some places, making my walk especially strenuous. I chose not to bring them because I knew I would not need them on the ice, and I did not want to hang the extra weight off of my pack. At this point I became keenly aware of the energy I was expending and the need to conserve. Fortunately my trudging did not last long. Rangers must patrol the island periodically, as I came upon snowmobile tracks that followed the trail around the island. My hike became a little easier, Hallelujah!

View of Cedar Cove.

I arrived at Birch Bay. As I sat and tried to sip out of my camel back, I realized that the hose to my camel back was susceptible to the cold weather. The water inside the hose had frozen. I managed to break up the ice. The water in my pack was going to be the source for cooking the MRE I brought. It was critical that I kept this hose from freezing. Each time I took a drink, I had to push the remaining water back into the reservoir. I was grateful for the simple solution.

Having overcome these obstacles, I was ready to take East Trail and explore the lean-tos on the East shore. Along the way I spotted many signs of turkeys being present on the island. I’m am fascinated by wildlife on islands such as this. I always keep my eyes peeled for some kind of wildlife. Every lean-to in this park is secluded from the others which is appealing to me. I have yet to camp overnight on Knight Island in the summer but it is on the list.

Frozen waves at Oak Cliffs Overlook.

From the Aspen lean-to, the trail heads north. Stony Point lean-to has beautiful views of the lake and mountains.  The warmth of the sun and a fold up chair that seemed out of place, looked inviting to me. I passed it up for the familiar Cedar Cove lean-to. I still had some energy left and I knew there were some good views ahead. As I walked along the shore line chunks of ice heaved up like waves frozen in time.

Oak Cliffs Overlook is one of my favorite places on the island. Sailing friends; Steve and Lynne Smith, introduced us to the island in the summer of 2010. It was our picnic at Oak Bluffs that solidified my desire to camp at Knight Island. A trail breaks out of the woods and leads you to a wide open area. From high on top of the rocky bluff, one can clearly see the Lake Champlain valley and the Green Mountains in all their splendor. Cedar and Oak trees frame the view. It is a short walk to lean-tos on either side, making this place a great area to hang out for campers.  On this day I could see a visible pressure crack that went diagonally from Knight Island and zig-zagged to the south end of Woods Island. From there it continued east towards Burton Island and Hathaway Point. The view reminded me of some sort of moonscape. I have crossed these pressure cracks before, but today I was grateful that I didn’t. I took in the view and just absorbed all nature had to offer.

The Cedar lean-to.

Cedar Cove lean-to lies just north of Oak Cliffs. I have day camped here before under similar circumstances in 2014. For some reason I am stuck on this place. Besides the view and the close proximity to the cliffs, I remember there being an ample supply of firewood from a fallen oak tree. I was banking that it had not been picked clean. I was not disappointed. The sight was as I remembered it.

I had expended a lot of energy trudging through the deep snow. It was important to set up camp and prepare my MRE. I resisted my primal instincts to start a fire first. I love a good fire! I set up my kitchen on a picnic table that was placed inside the shelter for the winter months. It protected me from the west wind and I was able to shed a few layers. It felt good to lighten the load for a spell.

While the water boiled for my Cajun black bean and rice, I gave into the temptation and prepared the fire ring. The water was taking a while to boil so I grabbed a snack and broke out my new camping equipment. Our son Patrick  bought me a cool collapsible saw to use in situations like this. I completed the package by purchasing a new hatchet and some fire starter. My ancient and heavy wood handled hatchet was too “Daniel Boone”. I was excited to try out my new toys.

Fire starting tools.

I used both tools on the nearby fallen oak. There was plenty of fallen limbs on the ground, but the limbs on the oak were ripe for the picking. Dinner was not far away, so I did not my mind using up a little energy while I waited. The saw worked very well. It was sharp and did not fold up in my hand while I used it. I have a shovel that did that once. I haven’t used it since!

By this time I was in full multi tasking mode. The cajun black bean and rice was in the pouch cooking away. I was hoping to enjoy a small fire while enjoying lunch. The fire starter that I bought for a dollar brags that it will burn on water. In this case it would have to be ice. The bottom of the ring was frozen. I meticulously placed the fire stater on the ice and placed some dryer lint over it. From there I built a tee-pee style structure, using small limbs and gradually adding bigger limbs as I went. The moment of truth arrived with pleasure as my fire gained momentum.

Making fire on ice.

I sat at the table and enjoyed my meal. The fire flickered above the ring and smoke puffed out the fragrance of winter camping. I savored my meal in between maintaining the fire. I was not planning to be here long so starting a raging fire with bigger wood was not practical. The fire flickered away and the pangs of hunger were gone. The primitive man inside me was warm and satisfied. What does a man do when he is in this state? He lies down and rests. That is just what I did. The floor of the leanto acted as a temporary bed.

My physical, emotional and spiritual energy were rejuvenated. I picked up my belongings, put out the fire, and left no trace. All that remained were some foot prints and ashes. With my pack firmly fastened, I hit the trail. When I got to North beach I had to decide to hike the interior of the island using the West tail or walk around the island on the ice. I really wanted to hike the interior, hoping for a better chance at seeing some wild life. It was getting late and walking on the ice expended less energy. Being cooped up in a plow truck for almost 4 months has it’s disadvantages. I chose the ice.

Looking back at the island.

I slowed my pace and enjoyed the view looking in. I was privileged to spot a beautiful red fox bounding into the woods with it’s bushy red tail. By this time, the sun was on the western side of the island and that sweet light that photographers love made her red coat really stand out. My small phone camera would never had done it justice. As I approached the ranger station I spotted some turkeys running into the woods. This was turning out to be a good day.

When I arrived at the ranger station, the sun was still shining brightly. I seized the moment to prepare for the final leg of my journey by hydrating and laying on the picnic table. My pack acted as a pillow. The sun felt good on my face. My back and legs got to rest before making the 2.5 mile trek back to the car. I tried to find a landmark on the horizon that was close to my car. My body was walking straight ahead to the car, but my mind was back, wandering all over the island. I reminisced of my journey and the small challenges I faced along the way. I was happy to have overcome them on my own. The primal man inside me was tired but satisfied.